Illustration by Sarameeya Aree
There are certain times in life when an epiphany doesn’t just ping like a cartoon lightbulb but instead punches you in the face like a cartoon spring-loaded boxing glove. It was along the lines of the latter when watching an episode of the Australian kids’ TV show Bluey that I was struck with the startling revelation that I am an abject excuse for a father. For this reason, I’m not all that eager for new episodes of Bluey to be released for fear of the inevitable introspection that will follow.
Now, the chances are that if you’ve landed on this article, you’ve deliberately sought out pieces about Bluey, and you know what it is, but for the uninitiated, here’s a little overview of this genuine work of art masquerading as a children’s television show.
As we’ve already established, Bluey is a cartoon from Down Under. It is aimed at children aged roughly five to seven years old and follows the daily life of the Heelers, a family of—surprise, surprise—blue (and red) heelers, a breed of Australian cattle dog. So far, so straightforward.
In the tradition of the greatest cartoon sitcoms—The Simpsons, Family Guy… Hey Duggee—Bluey addresses deeper issues and dilemmas from beneath a mask of comedic light-heartedness. Just a few of the loaded subjects tackled with genuine elegance include: loss (Copycat), cultural commonality (Camping), the challenges of age (Phones), gender politics (Mums and Dads), and attachment (Sleepytime).
This is not to say that every episode requires you to unpick a subtext. Indeed, many leave the emotional heft at the door and go straight for laughs. The tone is set from the first episode with Bluey and her sister Bingo using a ‘magic xylophone’ to freeze their father, subsequently allowing them to decorate him with a felt tip and a feather boa. If you’re a child of the 80s like I am, spend seven minutes watching Pass the Parcel, in which it is explained how the current iteration of Pass the Parcel is raising a generation of “squibs.” No, really.
That’s enough of the effusive praise. It’s time to look at the sickening flipside of Bluey—the dark underbelly of this cute little pup.
As a character, Bluey is charming. Her sister Bingo is hilarious. Their mother, Chilli, is wonderful, and even the affable next-door neighbor, Lucky’s Dad, is a bit of a superhero. But the real star of the show (at least in my eyes), the one whose presence lights up the screen, is Bandit, the Heeler family patriarch.
Therein lies the rub. Bandit Heeler is both an absolute hero and TV’s biggest bastard. There is no character on the small screen who can make you feel as worthless, as much of a PoS, as useless a parent, as Bandit bloody Heeler. And yet… to love Bluey the show is to love Bandit. Like any supervillain, he dominates the screen with supreme charisma. But when occasionally the mask slips, it’s difficult not to snigger smugly.
This is a man, sorry, a dog who continually finds time to entertain his children. No matter the time of day, no matter the lack of energy. He entertains the kids in his sleep in one episode. There are no complaints. There is little half-heartedness. Once there is a raised voice in response to being nagged too often, but he quickly reverts to type and invents an infestation of fairies that needs to be cleared.
Like Dr. Frankenstein, the (quite brilliant) team behind Bluey could be forgiven for having no sense of the monster they’ve created in Bandit. Yet, in the episode “Octopus,” Bluey’s friend Chloe asks her father to play a game that Bandit has invented (the eponymous Octopus). When he struggles to play the game and cannot commit to it in the same way as his fellow father, Chloe kicks him (and the dads at home) right in the feels with the line, “Bluey’s dad is more fun than you.” Wow.
As you would imagine, Chloe and her father eventually find common ground and improve on the game, strengthening their bond in the process. It is, after all, kids’ TV and not a bleak Mike Leigh drama. This is a real moment of empathetic self-awareness between the show’s writers and the parents at home. We are all in this together. We can’t always be on our game, and there’s always room for growth as a parent.
But to be perfectly honest, they can shove their lovely self-awareness up their collective backside. It’s a one-off and doesn’t result in any material change to the Heeler family dynamic. Bandit still parents with unerring patience and profundity. And Chilli is little different. If she’s not scrubbing the floor, she’s inventing new games or pretending to be a sat nav with hilarious consequences. Mind you, at least there’s an admission that Chilli (and mums in general) need a break from time to time (see “Beach” and “Sheepdog”).
Not Bandit, though. Oh no, he’s Dad of the Year every day of the week. From morning till night. Making our children think that every dad should be like this. He should be moved to post-watershed TV and perhaps succumb to distemper after a particularly vicious fight with a dingo.
OK, so I indulged in some hyperbole in my opening paragraph and have adopted faux outrage for the past few paragraphs. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Bandit being portrayed as a wonderful father. And the mask slips more often than I mention.
As a father, I’m absolutely fine. Not perfect like Bandit Heeler, but still perfectly adequate. I’m like a Henry vacuum cleaner—I do the job well but without the panache of a Dyson.
Through continual readings at bedtime, I can recite numerous Julia Donaldson books by muscle memory. I am not emotionally distant like some parents and tell my girls I love them daily. I let them paint my nails, put clips in my receding hairline, and beat me in memory match card games (though there’s no let them in this instance, unfortunately). Only last night I meticulously cleaned the vomit from the cracks of my youngest’s tablet after she came home with a stomach bug from nursery.
But good grief if Bandit doesn’t make me feel like Chloe’s dad on occasion. Again, I’m not bitter. I’m sincerely grateful to Bluey creator Joe Brumm for giving us Bluey and Bingo and Chilli and Lucky’s Dad… and, most of all, Bandit. He’s not just provided us with fabulous entertainment. He has given us new games to play with our children. He’s introduced a few new methods of parenting. He’s gifted us extra enthusiasm to just be better.
Look, we all need role models. It’s just that some of us find them in cartoon dogs. Who’d have thought? Oh, and new episodes of Bluey can’t come soon enough. I need new games to play with my kids!